The uneasy relationship between France and Syria. Analysis by Hichem Karoui

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In March 2011, the public anger witnessed in other Arab countries surfaced in Syria, putting the regime of President Bashar Al Assad on the defensive for the first time in his 11-year presidency.

As the Syrian security forces continue to fire on unarmed civilians, while the United Nations now talks of more than 1200 dead, recalls countless cases of torture and violations of human rights and as thousands of refugees fleeing Syria, a statement of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Quai d’Orsay) on June 14, 2011, noted that “this is an abysmal record.

France hopes that the UN Security Council takes a decision on the intolerable situation prevailing in Syria and the headlong rush of the Damascus regime. Each member of the Security Council must take responsibility. We regret the lack of consensus within the Council.”

The same day, answering a question before the National Assembly, Minister of Foreign Affairs Alain Juppé of France, said:

“What can we do? France cannot and will not act but within the framework of international legality. At the Security Council, despite all our efforts, especially with the British and the Americans, we have not yet reached our goal. Indeed, China and Russia threat to use the veto. We will not take the risk of a vote on a draft resolution condemning the Syrian regime if we cannot reach a sufficient majority. Today, we have probably nine votes in the Security Council. We still have to convince South Africa, India and Brazil. I think if things evolve so that we could have eleven votes, we would put the draft resolution to the vote and everyone would then face his responsibility: we will see whether China and Russia would veto.”

France’s relationship with Syria has never been easy and was even further complicated by the ongoing revolt as it was by the unresolved assassination case of former prime minister of Lebanon Rafik Al Hariri.

Received at Brookings Institute in Washington DC on June 6, 2011, Mr. Juppé explained to his audience the position of his country regarding the “Arab Spring.” He asserted that either for Libya or Syria, the rejection of the reforms and the vicious circle of violence are just intolerable. “We don’t have two different policies in these two different countries,” he said and clearly denounced the current repression linking it to the previous massacre of Hama population in 1982.

At least 20,000 people were killed in Hama (February 2008). However, President François Mitterrand—the newly elected—did not condemn this brutal repression. On the one hand, France felt it was better to ignore the massacre rather than support the Muslim Brotherhood. On the other, France’s Syrian policy has always been commanded by its interests in Lebanon.

On the morning of October 23, 1983, in Beirut, 58 French peacekeepers died in an explosion at their headquarters: “Drakkar.” A few minutes earlier, another bomb destroyed the US headquarters, killing 239 soldiers.

The period of the eighties was particularly stressing for the French-Syrian relations. Terrorist actions assumedly orchestrated by Syria killed French soldiers in Lebanon. There is a resulting legacy of distrust of Syria among many French officials.

One of the principal reasons for improvement in French-Israeli relations has been the Jospin government’s strong criticism of Syria. In February 2000, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin told the Knesset that Hezbollah militants operating in southern Lebanon were guilty of “terrorist actions,” and condemned Syria for supporting them. France praised Israel’s decision to remove its forces from southern Lebanon in May 2000 and expressed a willingness to send a force of 1,600 peacekeepers if UNIFIL is reinforced to number 4,500 men.

Members of the Jospin government were reportedly critical of President Chirac for attending the funeral of Syrian President Hafez Al Assad in June 2000; he was the only western head of state to do so. Foreign Minister Védrine, according to media reports, told the French cabinet that Assad’s son and successor, Bashar, might not be able to exercise power in Syria in the long run, and was unlikely to liberalize the country.

These remarks were interpreted as critical of Chirac’s decision to go to the funeral and thereby implicitly endorse Bashar’s succession. The French President had received at the Elysée Palace (November 7, 1999) the young man who will take over as President of Syria.

During the first mandate of the Bush presidency, France has been critical of the US Administration’s desire to promote democracy in the Middle East, but that did not hinder them from coordinating some policies.

Thus, following the 60th anniversary of the Normandy landings, Jacques Chirac launched with George W. Bush, a diplomatic initiative leading to the 1559 UN resolution directed against Syria. Adopted September 2, 2004, the text demands the withdrawal of 15,000 Syrian troops from Lebanon and an end to the interference of Damascus in the country—a turning point in the French diplomacy.

When Rafik Al Hariri was murdered in Beirut (February 2005), some people in France, saw it as the “Syrian answer” to the US-French humiliating initiative.

Being a close friend of Mr. Hariri, President Chirac did everything until the end of his second term, to isolate Syria diplomatically. Even today the former president is housed in an apartment owned by the Hariri family, on the banks of the Seine in Paris.

The period 2005 to 2008 saw the isolation of Syria as a result of its association with Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran. This was the policy of the Bush administration and France, which likely instigated the same stance in the EU.

But once elected, President Sarkozy made a clear change in favor of a diplomatic rehabilitation of Syria. He proposed Syria to join the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM), claiming that engaging Syria would be more productive than the apparently failed policy of ostracism. Most EU members acted in agreement.

Twenty-five years after the operation that killed 58 French soldiers in Beirut, the Syrian head of state was present at the summit of July 13, 2008, and the next day, despite the controversy, he attended the July 14 parade among the “guests of honour.”

As the victims’ families felt offended by the presence of Bashar Al Assad in Paris, an article appeared in Le Monde penned by one of the staff of the Elysée, saying: “This is a historic mistake! The Drakkar was Iran’s operation! Syria was only behind the murder of ambassador Delamare.” (The representative of France in Lebanon was murdered, September 4, 1981 in Beirut.)

In 2009, France was even well disposed toward the Syrian regime and probably had instigated the proposal of an association agreement offered by the EU to Mr. Bashar, who, oddly enough turned it down.

On February 2010, at a press conference in Damascus, Prime Minister Mr. François Fillon of France wished to move up a gear and step up an economic partnership “currently well below its potential.” But as he warned shortly before, “the condition of a continued economic development in Syria is peace and security.” In his view, “Syria has a key role in establishing peace in the Middle East.” He then asked for Syria’s help on the Iranian nuclear issue.

But his Syrian counterpart Mohammed Naji Otri, refused categorically and definitively. “We have always supported the right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy,” said Mr. Otri, who then called for a “denuclearization of the region” because “the threat comes from Israel.”

Mr. Fillon also reiterated that France was “disposed to help resuming the dialogue between Syria and Israel with the participation of Turkey.” “There is no time to lose,” he said, adding that France would begin discussions with the three parties “without delay” for a resumption of peace negotiations also interrupted during the war on Gaza.

The visit resulted in the signature of a 27 million Euro contract for the sale of two regional jets and a protocol for the sale of 14 Airbus to the Syrian Arab Airlines Company blocked by an extended U.S. embargo. Mr. Fillon referred to the project of a new metro in Damascus and a new airport terminal, which “could be emblematic of a fruitful cooperation between our two countries.”

However, all these efforts came to a naught, when Mr. Bashar refused the calls pressing serious reforms, preferring the policy of confrontation with his people.

Since last Wednesday, the Security Council is examining the draft of a UN resolution submitted by France and the United Kingdom with the aim of condemning the repression in Syria. To obtain the necessary majority, the text must reach eleven votes of the fifteen in the Security Council. The most reluctant are: Brazil, South Africa and especially India, whose position is very close to that of Russia. Lebanon would also be unfavourable to vote against its powerful neighbour and former occupier.

The French still hope to convince Brazil and South Africa.

(Hichem Karoui is an expert in US-Middle East relations. His political column has been published by varied Arabic and English speaking media. He holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Sorbonne University. He can be reached by email at: [email protected]) His homepage: http://www.hichemkaroui.com)